TORONTO, Canada – One of the biggest headaches for law enforcement agencies around the world has been the growth of social media, but police in the capital city of Ontario may have some of the answers.
Toronto is one of the largest cities in North America - and it’s also one of the world’s most connected. For the last two years police officers have been doing their most innovative policing online.
Front line cops made change occur
Sergeant Tim Burrows of the Toronto Police Services started using Twitter in April of 2009 after a local television station gave him the idea to tweet reporters about traffic accidents.
At first he used the social network to communicate about traffic accidents and to provide updates. Today, Burrows also sends safety messages, daily tips and information about where traffic officers are conducing enforcements on that day.
Now most of Burrow’s followers are ordinary members of the public who regularly ask for advice, send in photos – or just express their frustrations. Suddenly police officers are not just nameless people in a uniform.
Taking social media involvement further
Sgt. Burrows, and another officer, Constable Scott Mills, were front line cops using social media to communicate with citizens.
By July 2011 their tweeting was so successful the Toronto Police Service launched an official social media program across the whole force.
Led by Deputy Chief Peter Sloly, the program has nine main goals, all centered around reaching and enforcing a social media strategy, suggesting best practices for officers engaged in the use of social media, and a marketing campaign that would highlight the Toronto Police Service use of social media.
Since July, 177 members of the police service from 27 units, have been officially trained in social media and will be using it daily in their jobs.
Thanks to the initial efforts of Tim Burrows and Scott Mills, Toronto has become a pioneer in using social media to advance public safety, with request for guidance from other cities across North America and the UK.
Social media helping solve crimes
Social media builds bridges that might not otherwise exist, but can using social networking actually help solve crimes?
Scott Mills told a group of 250 delegates from 16 countries about a case where social media helped solve and prevent crime. In Mills words, “the community is scratching at our door to help”. The help comes via networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
In July 2010 seven year old Pearl da Massa went missing in Toronto. Her father Henry da Massa was frantic for help and begged the police to use social media to help find her. Investigators quickly set up a campaign to find Pearl using a #findpearl Twitter hashtag and an account @missingpearl.
According to the @missingpearl Twitter account, Pearl was found on September 26, 2011.
Social media in preparing and executing a large scale event
Meetings of the G20 bring together world leaders, often sparking violent protests and social unrest.
When Toronto played host to the G20 in 2010, the Toronto Police Service published a social media guide to help inform the public. Social media was also used by the Integrated Security Unit, made up of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Toronto Police Service and other police forces.
Scott Mills and Tim Burrows worked 12-hour shifts during the G20 meeting to update Twitter, Facebook and YouTube links.
Burrows said social media was crucial to telling people what was happening at the G20 from a public order and safety perspective. It’s not only protestors who need to tweet.
“Social media have made it possible for those people to gather together online and increase their voice and their position. Law enforcement must do the same, work together, increase our voice and always present the truth with accuracy and transparency.”